Asia-Pacific Governments seek ways to accelerate action towards an HIV/AIDS-free region

Bangkok (UN ESCAP Strategic Communications and Advocacy Section) – Government leaders, senior officials, civil society representatives and people living with HIV from 34 Asia-Pacific countries began three days of talks at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Headquarters in Bangkok today to find ways to speed up progress towards an AIDS-free region, including by removing legal and policy barriers that hamper access to HIV services.

The 6-8 February UN meeting marks the first time officials from health, justice, law enforcement, social development and drug control agencies in the region have come together at a single forum, and are joined by people living with HIV and representatives from populations most affected by HIV - including sex workers, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men and transgender people - to review the region’s progress towards international commitments on AIDS.

Addressing the meeting, ESCAP Executive Secretary Dr. Noeleen Heyzer stressed that “The Asia-Pacific region has seen impressive gains in addressing HIV, but the epidemic is still outpacing the response. To move us closer towards the vision of Zero new infections, Zero discrimination and Zero AIDS-related deaths, we must ensure sustainable and high-impact responses by explicitly and meaningfully addressing HIV within the broader inclusive development agenda of the Asia-Pacific region.”

The Asia-Pacific High-level Intergovernmental Meeting on the Assessment of Progress against Commitments in the Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS and the Millennium Development Goals is organised by ESCAP, in cooperation with the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), UN Women, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The meeting is taking place six months after the historic 2011 United Nations High-Level Meeting on AIDS at which world leaders committed to bold new targets on AIDS, and aims to accelerate implementation of these goals across the region.

“For the first time in history we have the possibility to end AIDS and Asia-Pacific nations have shown we can lead the world in reducing infections, increasing treatment and making an impact. But we cannot ignore the challenges our region faces and how these can jeopardize our ability to progress,” H.E. Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, President of Fiji, told the meeting.

Participants will identify areas for regional cooperation, particularly in addressing policy and legal barriers that hamper access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services by people living with HIV and those most at risk of infection.

Speaking at the opening, H.E. Mr. Kittiratt Na-Ranong, Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand underlined how success in Thailand’s response has been borne out of enhanced multisectoral collaboration, increased political will and prudent allocation of resources, and underlined the timeliness of the Meeting.

Significant regional progress but major challenges remain

Over the past decade, there has been a 20 per cent drop in HIV infection rates and over one million people obtained access to life-saving antiretroviral treatment across the region. The incidence of HIV among children below 15 years of age has declined in recent years, partly due to improved services to prevent parent-to-child transmission.

However, epidemics are increasing and emerging in some countries. At the end of 2010, the region accounted for some 15 per cent of the estimated 34 million people living with HIV worldwide. More than 90 per cent of the over 6 million people living with HIV in the region are in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Russian Federation, Thailand and Viet Nam. India has the largest number of people living with HIV, estimated to be 2.4 million.

Although India and Thailand have relatively large numbers of people with HIV, the incidence of new HIV infections in both countries fell by more than 25 per cent between 2001 and 2009. In contrast, infections increased by more than 25 per cent in low HIV-prevalence countries, such as Bangladesh and the Philippines, during the same period.

In the Pacific, Papua New Guinea has the largest epidemic with HIV prevalence of 0.9 per cent (34,000 people) in 2009, although recent studies show infection levels are beginning to level off.

HIV in Asia is mainly spread through unsafe injecting drug use, sex work and sex between men. The rapid growth of epidemics among men who have sex with men (MSM) across the region, especially in cities, is a major source of new infections. Without significant investment and scaling up of MSM programmes, this group is projected to account for about half of new HIV infections in Asia by 2020.

Particular attention needs to focus on young people at higher risk of infection. Data suggests 95 per cent of all new infections among young people aged 25 and under in the region are among young sex workers, young people who use drugs, young men who have sex with men and young transgender people. Yet programmes addressing the needs of these young people are scarce.

Ending legal and social discrimination

An estimated 90 per cent of Asia-Pacific countries have punitive laws, policies or practices that block access to services for people living with, and most at risk of, HIV. A regional survey of people living with HIV found that 24 per cent of respondents had lost their jobs as a result of discrimination based on their status. About 13 per cent indicated that stigma and discrimination contributed to diminished health care access and 19 per cent reported rights violations.

Several countries in Asia-Pacific have taken concrete steps to reform national laws that impede universal access to HIV services. These include the lifting of travel restrictions on people living with HIV in China and Fiji, replacing mandatory detention with voluntary drug dependence treatment for drug users in Malaysia and review of outdated legislative frameworks on sexual behaviour in Papua New Guinea.

In the drive to eliminate stigma and discrimination and increase access to HIV services, evidence shows that the most successful HIV programmes, policies and plans in the region are those that, in their design and implementation, meaningfully involve people living with HIV and populations at higher risk.

Representing a coalition of people living with HIV and key affected populations at the opening ceremony, Vince Crisostomo called on countries to be accountable by honouring their political commitments. “We stand ready to work in partnership with you. Together we can do it.”